Networking into an (Unadvertised) Dream Job: How Hannah became a Product Manager at Canva

Summary

Hannah Ahn landed her role in Product Management at Canva at the age of just 17 and followed an unconventional path after dropping out of uni after 4 weeks. In this episode we discuss how she networked her way into her dream role at Canva even when it was unadvertised, the importance of personal brand and reputation, and the fearless pursuit for what you want.

Key Takeaways

  1. It’s not necessarily who you know but who knows you.
  2. To network sincerely, think about what is near the other person. How can I help them with it?
  3. You don’t need permission to do a lot of things. Take a step today, take a step tomorrow, it doesn’t have to be everything at once, but just like slowly build things up

Transcript:

Viv: Hi everyone. Welcome back to sprout. Today we have a very special guest: Hannah.

Sydney: Welcome to the show, Hannah. Hannah is an 18-year-old product manager at Canva. You might have heard of Canva. It’s a unicorn. She dropped out of a scholarship program doing UNSW Comp-Sci after just four weeks. She’s now working on a newsletter and community to support ambitious people with the careers and it currently has seven thousand subscribers, which is kind of amazing. 

Viv: Yeah, that’s amazing. 

Hannah: Yeah, thanks guys. I’m super keen to be on the show and just chat about my story and my journey. So yeah, thank you for inviting me. 

Sydney: Yeah, we’re really glad to have you on our show. To start us off, we’d love to hear your story from your voice. It’d be great if you could start from wherever you think, make sense. 

Hannah: Yeah, for sure. So I guess maybe it started in high school where I had a huge fascination with start ups and entrepreneurship. I was also working as a graphic designer at the time. I was working on my own side hustle business, where we connected high School students to quality work experience because I always thought work experience and education in schools going from high school to university – That was just really crap to be honest. And so going through that whole journey of like trying to get work experience myself and like really struggling, I decided to give back to my community and I started that whole business. During my final year of year 12, I was very much like, I’m working on this project that helps people with work experience. There are all these like university applications opening up. But I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I kind of thought to myself, what better way to figure that out than do work experience myself. So, because I was working as a graphic designer at the time and I was really interested in start-ups. I saw Canva was popping up in the news a lot. I use Canva myself quite a lot. And so I thought, why not get work experience at one of the biggest startups in right now that so happens to be on graphic design and making design democratized for people. 

So mid-year-12 I set up a mission that I wanted to get an internship at Canva either that year or during my gap year the next year. And then from that point, I like reached out to a bunch of recruiters, just like cold message people on linkedin, trying to get my foot in the door. And then there was this one person after messaging a bunch of people, who was like yeah, we’d be keen to think about it, maybe send us your portfolio. After that I was like, I don’t really have a portfolio and I had to really scramble to put one together and luckily I had like a lot of experience before and I attended a lot of hackathon, so I had something I guess substantial to show them. 

I sent it through, but it was still a lot of kind of roadblocks to me getting an internship there and it only worked out in the end because he mentioned my name around to a bunch of people. But they didn’t really see the significance yet. But an art teacher at my school, who I didn’t even really know personally, she just heard about me and I guess maybe that was just for my reputation and friends of the school. She thought that I would be a good person who would be a good fit to work there. She so happened to have a brother who worked at Canva and was like employee number 4. 

Sydney: Wow. In the total history of Canva? 

Hannah: Yeah. So he is like been at Canva for years and she was willing to vouch for me and she said she wouldn’t normally do it otherwise. And then she sent my portfolio to him who forwarded it to Cliff, the COO of the company. And he passed it on into their internal slack channel where they do all the internal comms. From that, someone noticed my portfolio and was like, yeah, be keen to take on this person for an internship. From that point, it just went from doing work experience, turning that into a project management internship. Now becoming a product manager right now. 

Sydney: Well, that’s interesting. Before we unpack the real stuff, I have some question. So I know that kind of graphic designing platform and you had an interesting graphic design. But for the internship, did you think you’re going to be doing graphic design work, or is that like kind of meta and that it’s actually more like a tech company where you will be doing a different role. 

Hannah: Yeah, so that’s a really good question. So I think when I was in high school, all this stuff about careers and like roles in tech was so vague to me. I didn’t know what product management was, I didn’t know the difference between a product designer and a graphic designer. So I was like, initially, I want to be a graphic designer, so I want to be product designer. But I didn’t know that they were very different things. It was only until I did some experience there, I didn’t necessarily have a title when I did that, and they were like, we think you’d be better fit as a product manager. 

Sydney: High level though, what’s the difference between product designer and manager? 

Hannah: Yeah, for sure. It’s a product designer is very much like if you’re designing and building a website or any kind of software. And it can also be a physical product that they design out the specs. So what does it look like? How will people use it? Like even like very I guess granular things like how to design a button, like all this sort of stuff. Whereas a product manager is more the middleman. They will work with engineers, data scientists and product designers, and also like senior management to work together on building a product. And they’ll set out the vision and work on the execution. They’ll bring everyone together and I guess not necessarily lead the team, but lead the product vision. Help everyone through that. 

Viv: What’s interesting is you being in product management. A lot of product management traditionally comes from software developers. How do you manage technical development and stuff? 

Hannah: Yeah. Hundred percent. I’ll be working with engineers day out, day in day out and also my designer and like any, anyone in my team. 

Viv: And when you’re competing with people who have done a whole degree in Compsci and stuff, how do you have the technical know-how to be able to work with the engineers and coordinate what they do? 

Hannah: Yeah, for sure. I think it’s a common misconception about product management in terms of needing to be technical, you need to have a Compsci degree. Whereas I would say there is no one degree for product management. In fact, the head of product at Canva, before the previous one, she studied zoology in university. And so I think if you’re interested in a career path in product management, what matters most is if you have a spike in a particular skill. So whether that be you’re a really great collaborator, you can really communicate well written and verbal, or maybe you’re really great at designing so you have design expertise. I also know a product manager at Canva, who used to be a data analyst in the past, so she can use that expertise as well. I think what matters the most is that you have a broad skill set so you have some level of technical understanding. You don’t need to know how the code works except just the basic things to be able to communicate with the engineers. You need to know what good design is, how to analyse data and also work with a team, but you don’t necessarily need to be an expert in all four. You can also just have your own special niche. 

Viv: Really interesting idea. What’s your niche? 

Hannah: Yes. I would say my niche is probably more having that design experience in the past, really understanding things from a user perspective. So having I guess this product sense and also being able to work in a team and having verbal and written communication skills. 

Sydney: That’s really impressive. Particularly after just graduating from high school, you were able to figure out what your value proposition is and what you can bring to the team as a product manager. That’s really cool. 

Viv: Yeah, absolutely. And to understand more about the timeframe, you talked a lot about year 12 in your story. So how many years have you graduated since then? What age where you when you join Canva, were you still in year 12 and doing high School?

Hannah: I graduated high School in 2019. Yeah. And so when I landed my role at Canva, I was 17 years old and that was after high School, around February the next year. Just because I went to school year earlier. Now I’m like 18/19 this year. 

Sydney: When you and networking and trying to get your way into Canva, I know you touched briefly on finding people to vouch for you. What do you think made them believe in you and want to vouch for you? 

Hannah: People kind of have this misconception when they’re doing networking that it’s not what you know, it’s who you are. And that’s just like a common saying that people like tossing around. But I would say it’s not necessarily you know, it’s who knows you. It’s who knows you for the kind of work that you do. They believe that you have a good work ethic or you’re really good at some things and they see you for your value rather than you just knowing a bunch of people because that’s not necessarily the same as someone to vouch for you. 

I think what made me really stand out was that I already showed I was willing to go through the hard yards of putting a portfolio together and reaching out to people, even when I was in high school, which is very uncommon thing for people to do. When I was reaching out to that one particular recruiter who vouched for me, three months after I reached out to him, there was a barbecue recruiter event an campus at UNSW.I just thought I’d go there and this was during school and I met up with him and he was very surprised because he didn’t expect me to come up for this event. I was the only high school student there with maybe second, third year university students. 

Sydney: Well, that’s actually so cool. Some people cut themself out. They’re like, oh, I’m not eligible for this internship. I’m not going to apply. Like I’m not even going to look into it. I know I was guilty of this before as well, but your story just shows that you shouldn’t ever cut myself off from pursuing your dream. 

Viv: I think you show really, really good initiatives, like way more than most people which is probably what make you stand out. Right? I love the quote you said about that it’s not who you know but who knows you. How did you get people to know who you are? 

Hannah: Yeah, Yeah, so I think more broadly, cause nowadays I get recruiters messaged me on linkedin “ do you want this role?” but I think what makes me stand out in terms of people knowing me is being very vocal about my personal brand, what I can offer and wanting to genuinely help people on platforms like Linkedin or email and all that sort of stuff. I think what also really helps is I try to actively get my brand out there. So like constantly posting on LinkedIn, commenting, sharing things. Being someone who is just providing value and content without necessarily being asked to do so. And like when people keep seeing that pop up, they’re like, oh, this person really interesting. Like then they’re obviously motivated to do something like even just write like a 200 word post a few times a week. That sort of thing does not go unnoticed because people just keep seeing it. And once they keep seeing it, and they get curious, they look into a profile, they read more about you and they’re like, oh, this person’s like, really interesting. So it’s like just finding ways to kind of get into people’s consciousness and top of mind. Like I think that’s what’s really important. 

Viv: I saw one of your post got 700 likes and I think people forget about the power of networks like Linkedin. Like me personally. I just feel embarrassed to write anything on LinkedIn, but yeah, I think it could be such a powerful tool. 

Hannah: Yes, I do that for sure. Like I think as well, things like writing online and creating content is really great business and you know that creates a wheel, like a vehicle for serendipity. So I think on all these platforms and, especially when you write publicly, like you have your own blog or your website when you’re writing and delivering values, people will read them. You won’t know who’s reading your content, but sometimes they will reach out to you that way and you can form so many great relationships with people, and get access to so many more opportunities than you otherwise would. You’re not necessarily pitching yourself, but because you’ve written like an article or a piece of work that’s going to stay on the internet forever and people are going to be able to access that whenever they want. So you are just unknowingly and just like passively getting people to notice you, use your work and potentially get opportunities. 

Sydney: I really like what you said about trying to genuinely add value to the community rather than thinking of networking as a way of, “how can I extract value?”. You have to give in order to get as well. And that’s like really cool. Just unpacking it a little bit more. What do you think is your personal brand? 

Hannah: Yeah, for sure. So I think my personal brand at the moment is, I guess in terms of what I do, offering career advice, helping people with their career, figure out what they want to do in life, how to get there. I think that’s something I’ve always been very passionate about. I think as well, just, I love design and I’m always interested in startups and product management. So I think that also sits under my brand. I think just generally wanting to make a connection with people. Like if I have a coffee chat with someone, I generally want to know more about them. I don’t want to just talk about myself. So being that kind of person is I think what I would say.

Viv:  So someone who gives career advice and is always open to learn more than stuff. 

Sydney: When you were networking away to Canva, I know that you created a website. Could you tell us more about that? 

Hannah: Yeah, sure. So when I made a website for Canva, it was my own portfolio. And inside, I had the various projects that I worked on in the past just to kind of showcase my work in terms of not being a product design and also just like digital and print design and also leading and working on things. I also showcased my startup that I was working on. In that website, I also had an about page about me, like my story and also a page dedicated to Canva: so this was me wanting to work at Canva. I just kind of wrote an open letter, why I think you should hire me why I’d be a good fit, why I want to work at Canva. So that was my portfolio and now I just have my own personal website where I have blog articles i’ve written, just like more about me, how people can contact me. 

Viv: I think that something a lot of grad and intern students at uni can apply too. You could easily make a whole page on that specific company and will help you stand out. 

Hannah: Yeah, 100 percent. I feel like another thing, a lot of grads and people in uni who are applying for roles often people have this spray and pray approach. It’s like, I’ll send out 200 applications in a week, and maybe I’ll hear back from some of them. But I would say that even though you’re making like your funnel opportunity bigger doesn’t mean that you’re actually guaranteeing getting a role because on average, two hundred people apply for a single role. But to be honest, because that’s been exacerbated with much senior people applying for entry level roles so you might have like three hundred, four hundred people applying for a single job. And if you’re one person in the application process out of two hundred and that means you have a zero point zero, zero percent of getting the role. So it’s very unlikely if you’re applying just by sending out your resume, you know, that’s why you need to be creative in terms of networking, how you can actually stand out. It doesn’t have to be through conventional submit to a job ad, answer their questions. 

Viv: Sydney, you have a personal website as well, even though you work in finance. 

Sydney: Yeah, I was actually just going to bring it up because I did a workshop once about building a personal brand and the whole idea of recruiting is you want to be memorable. You want people to remember your name, especially in finance when everyone has the same resume. Yeah. And the recruiter is just going through huge stack. So what I did was I created a website about who I was outside of my resume and I had my interests and hobbies. It was like the cooking, Jujistsu … books, I was reading, what I was passionate about and all the things that are me but just not on my resume. I think it was really cool because I could actually track it . Yeah, I can see all these like dots and like the locations I was applying for checking me out. 

Viv: Do you linnk that in your resume?

Sydney: Yeah, I linked it in my resume and so only the recruiters who had my resume could see my website. 

Viv: How would you feel about making a page being like, this is what I want to get into Goldman? 

Sydney: I would have done anything I would have written to them if I knew where to post it too. Hannah I’d love to get your thoughts on this. I feel like when you’re applying for a job, it’s almost like dating in a way, like employers don’t just want someone who’s like hoeing around. They want someone who genuinely wants them. 

Hannah: Yeah, I would say if you’re applying for roles like max five, like you’re like applying to five different internships and in those internships like reach out to the recruiters who are actually recruiting for those roles. Find out who the decision maker is – so, who is actually leading the project relating to for that role. And that way you stand out a lot more than all the people that are just like blasting out their resume. They’re not even tailoring their resume to each company as well, which also makes a difference. So I would say don’t hoe around basically. Just like commit to a firm that you actually want. 

Sydney: When you were writing your letter to Canva, how did you communicate what value can bring to the team, especially as such a junior person? 

Hannah: Yeah, so I think for me, the value I really showed to Canva was that I was actually very committed to Canva in terms of their vision and their values, which actually matters a lot to Canva actually, and I think most companies as well. They want to see how will you be a cultural fit and how much you actually want to be part of the organization. And I think also in terms of my skills and all that I just wanted to showcase. What does canada actually mean to me as an organization and as a tool that I’ve used, and also why I really wanted to work in Canva. I didn’t focus on the very superficial things, like free lunches. I focused on what about the product really fascinates me, what about the company and the team as a whole? 

Viv: To calrify this letter was on your website? Did you say like dear Canva? 

Hannah: Yeah, I was like dear Canva, here’s my open letter to what Canva means to me and to why you guys should hire me . 

Viv: That’s so sweet. I would hire you. Just to clarify, the role that you got into actually wasn’t advertised? 

Hannah: So the role actually didn’t exist. What they did was they created the role because of me. Well, so I think, I think there’s like a few lessons, if you show that you’re extremely talented, you have a lot of initiative and you want to be part of the organization. Most people are very willing to give you that opportunity. As long as you show your value and what you can bring to the team. So I think that’s one thing. So they created the role because they thought that I would be a good fit. They even created my product manager role afterwards, like they were very open to like discussing what that would look like and accommodating for that. And I think another thing is that there’s also this huge thing in the job market called the hidden job market. So there are so many roles that are unadvertised because people will get into those roles because of referrals, they’ll know someone and they’ll just get them to be hired rather than pursuing a job and publicly just because pushing a job out can be time consuming and costly for organizations, they have to sift through like hundreds and thousands of resumes. So if you able to know people like recruiters and they know you back, you are easily in a better position to land a job, just through referrals. Also on a side note, like eighty five percent of jobs are recruited through referrals

Viv: That really comes back to networking. The power of networking. Just maintaining these networks. 

Sydney: Well, when networking,Ii know we touch on this briefly, but how do you network sincerely? 

Hannah: Yeah. So I think in terms of wanting to network sincerely, it’s really thinking about what is near the other person? how can I help them with it? Not to think of networking as a very transactional thing, they can be transactional, but I think it’s much better off when it’s not. I think networking is much better when you’re actually wanting to build relationships with people that you reach out to. In fact, some people that I reach out to on Linkedin, I would call my friends now rather than anything. So think of it more like relationship building rather than I’m doing something to get something, otherwise just seems super underhanded and all your interactions is obviously not going to come across as sincere. So yeah, I just really think of it from the perspective of like, how can I help this person? How can I build a relationship with them and value and like do things like maybe read an article that’s really interesting that they could get a lot of value out of it, send the article to them or write a summary of the article. So you can share ideas. I think sharing ideas is probably the easiest way to come across as more sincere and actually add value to other people. 

Viv: You make a really good point about friends. I think you can see your friends as your network as well and networking to make friends and network from your friends that you have. And like when you meet someone really interesting try like genuinely get to know them and want to be their friend and forming those relationships can be really helpful in the future as well. We actually asked for some viewer questions and you stole the question. Shout out to John for asking how did you avoid being insincere when building relationships and network in general? So that is exactly that. 

Sydney: Sorry, john 

Viv: Next question is from jack. Thanks for listening jack and for all your support. He wants to know, how do you develop a strong and positive reputation and brand in your network? 

Hannah: Yeah, so I think it just comes back to the things that we touched on during this. You want to really add value to community. So that can be like writing online, writing on any platform and also being someone that wants to help other people. So whether that you can connect someone who you want to be friends with or having to work with to someone else that they were getting value from. So being a connect, being someone that adds value just like the information or ideas in your community. And also in your work, being someone who upholds your own values and has integrity and all that sort of stuff. Like in fact, I have a friend of mine. actually my co-founder, he was working on a project for university, and the other people in his team didn’t necessarily take it seriously. They were just like messing around, they didn’t actually do a lot, whereas he took it very seriously. He did the work he put in the hard yards. And the person that that commissioned the project was actually the brother of some like very senior person in Westpac. He vouched for Blake in terms of applying for different roles and all that sort of stuff. Whereas other people wouldn’t have that connection because they didn’t take it seriousl.

I think the thing is like a lot of networks actually come from people, you know, people who are distantly near you. So as you go about life, if you’re just a good human and people know that if you do something really questionable, people will also find out. 

Viv:  Yeah. People find out. People remember and people talk.

Sydney: So what are you working on right now? 

Hannah: So right now I’m working on really growing NextChapter so we can reach more people and we can provide more quality careers, advice, resources, and opportunities. At the moment, we’re in the midst of opening a community for young ambitious individuals in university and also graduating who are looking to find like-minded people and also find opportunities to better themselves and their career. So that’s what I’m working on. Will be like dropping that maybe next few weeks. So, if you’re excited to join like a really great community of like-minded people, just sharing great ideas. I would love for you to join. 

Viv: Yeah, exciting. This is for your start-up side hustle and what was the name of that? 

Hannah: Next chapter. 

Viv: All right, we’ll be checking that out. How people find Next Chapter? 

Hannah: You can access next chapter at nextchapter.site. Or you can also follow myself, Max Marchione and also Blake Im on Linkedin. We’ll also be posting updates there. 

Viv: You’re still working at Canva?

Hannah: Yeah

Viv: Do you have any key lessons to share? 

Hannah: I would say really, you don’t need permission to do a lot of things in life is what I’d say. Like I think for myself, getting into Canva, I didn’t need permission from other people and I just kind of went for it myself. And like, it can be really tough because you might have like a lot of people who might be judging you or like controlling your life or whatever, like, particularly your parents. But it’s like your life, your decisions and you experience them yourself. All right, so just think of things like, if you really want to work on something, just go for it. Just take a step today, take a step tomorrow, it doesn’t have to be everything at once, but just like slowly build things up. That’s my advice. 

Sydney: That’s really good advice, we really admire and respect that, thank you. Thank you so much for coming on our show today, Hannah, we’ve learned so much about the power of networking, how to build your personal brand authentically and also how to be a good human in the workplace as well. 

Hannah: Yeah, thank you for having me really enjoyed our chat. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: